Another Day in Paradise

Waking on Friday morning, it seemed as though just another day in paradise lay ahead.  Karen was attending her final class at the five-day cooking course being held at the home of the cookbook author and her husband, who run these courses several times a year.  I was invited to join the 11 students and two teachers for a farewell lunch.  Arriving with the class, I sat under a large shady tree on a wide patio area overlooking a vineyard on the stepped terrace below my right side, as a rustic water wheel pumped a steady burble of water into the azure swimming pool on the stepped terrace below me to the left.  Olive groves, herb gardens, cobblestone paths underneath vine-smothered archways and cultivated flower beds surrounded us.  Forested hillsides stretched below us for miles around.  Between reading my book and watching the students periodically wander outside in their uniform aprons to pick herbs or vegetables from the garden, I chatted with the only other guest, wife of one of Karen’s classmates.  She was just as mesmerised as me by the luxuriously landscaped grounds we found ourselves sitting in.

At least three renovated 17th century stone buildings adjoined by a central cobbled courtyard hosted the class who were allocated to teams working out of three separate, fully equipped kitchens featuring marble sinks, central island benches and servery windows overlooking the grounds and valleys below.  Clay pizza ovens against one sheltered outdoor wall and an old gas stove against another wall beside the cellar door, form a fourth and fifth cooking area.  On such a sunny day the indoor dining room was shunned in favour of a large curved, concrete table perched in the shade of an atrium-like grapevine overlooking the hills and valleys below.

Stable door leading into the central courtyard of the homestead

Stable door leading into the central courtyard of the homestead

Scenic outdoor dining

Scenic outdoor dining

You would think life could not possibly get any better than this.  The company seemed warm and friendly, the five course meal was gourmet standard, and wine made from the private vineyards we were sitting amongst flowed.  As one of the courses ended, the teacher announced that today there were two guests at the table, and the cost of our meal was to tell the group a little about ourselves.

I gave a brief outline of having recently worked in Cambodia.  This elicited a lot of lively questions about TB disease, Cambodia, Khmer people and Medecins sans Frontieres.  When I said that the experience had been life changing, I was asked to elaborate, so I said that exposure to such poverty as I had not known existed, had a powerful impact on me.  A lady sitting opposite me asked if MSF ever need surgeons because her husband is a surgeon and it sounded like something he would like to do.  Whilst trying to answer her, I was asked to elaborate further on how and why the experience had affected me.

Using the example from my most recent blog, I told them Paula’s story.  In hindsight, I guess it’s because the topic of surgeons had been mentioned, that I chose Paula instead of anyone else from a multitude of possible examples I could have used.  Specialised surgery which is unavailable to Paula could potentially give her a normal life again.  I said that while I sit here enjoying this life of comfort, I am acutely aware that simultaneously there are many who don’t have even a smidgen of the comforts that I take for granted, for example this 25yo woman sitting on wooden slats in a shack beside the Mekong, waiting to die solely because she was born into impoverishment.  This all happened amidst a flood of questions and lively conversation.  One woman opposite me wiped tears from her eyes while her friend, the surgeon’s wife, asked me to elaborate on abdominal TB and Paula’s actual symptoms.  When I did she stated “my husband is one of the top colo-rectal surgeons in the USA and if we tell him about her, he will want to help”.  I could not quite believe my ears, was this a cruel joke?

When lunch ended, these two women, who I felt an immediate affinity with (for obvious reasons), returned to the tree between the vineyard and the pool with me.  The surgeon’s wife turned her iPhone to video and filmed me explaining briefly, Paula’s clinical and social circumstances.  She emailed the video to her husband.  Within an hour he had replied to say that he believes he can help!

I won’t go into detail as we don’t yet know how this will play out.  We will not mention more than a very faint possibility of hope to Paula at this stage, purely to get an idea of how she might react, while we wait to see if the many hoops we need to jump through and arrangements we need to organise can make this idea a reality.  In the space of one day an American surgeon, his colleagues, his wife, her friend, Karen, myself and the medical team in Cambodia, many of whom did not know each other existed until yesterday, have become a project team!

Connecting the world’s most privileged with the world’s most underprivileged to bring a little bit of balance, seems to me, more celestial than any landscaped poolside garden or gourmet meal could ever be.  It also seems that a little chunk of respect and worth, usually reserved for first-worlders, may have fallen off a cloud and landed in the twiggy lap of a young third-worlder who could never have dared imagine such good fortune!

I’ll update news here as it hopefully takes shape.


Picking in Provence

Picking grapes?
Picking lavender?
Picking olives?
Picking whether or not to be here.
Talk about a First World Problem!

There are castles on hilltops at every turn and churchbells ring out on the half hour from medieval spires reaching into blue skies.  Ancient Roman cities recently discovered under layers of soil sit on display in sunken parks beside current day market places.  Stone houses rise out of cliff faces, their walls thick with green vines shaped around doorways and shuttered windows furnished with blossoming flower boxes.  The scent of lavender fades in and out as you walk through the cobbled streets which seem almost haunted by the likes of Cinderella and Rapunzel.  It is a whimsical place.

New York “Karen #1” is doing a cooking class here.  She planned this trip two years ago, and her two bedroom / two bathroom apartment is in the centre of a medieval village north of Avignon, considered the capital of Provence.  Karen very generously invited me to join her, on condition that I understood she would be buying cheese, critiquing olive oils, tasting wine, cooking and eating with her tutor and about 10 classmates, for up to ten hours each day.  So by day I hang out in “our” village, or cycle to neighbouring villages to compare hilltop castle ruins and terrace garden cafes.  It is sheer bliss.  By night I have company to sip wine and eat strawberries and cheese with, on a balcony overlooking the local castle.


Two days ago cooking class went to the village’s weekly market to choose fish fillets, vegetables and various other ingredients.  I was invited to join them.  It was interesting, a lot of fun, and demonstrating my interest in cooking, I came away with two new tops, two new pairs of trousers and a number of Provençal laughs.  Karen came away with about 300g of goat’s cheese for the princely sum of €22.  This was fairly and squarely my fault as I stopped to taste morsels being held out to me on a wooden board, embroiling us in a situation with a French guy in a chef hat and red and white checked apron.

French people are nothing like the stereotypes which have made me reticent about visiting their country in the past.  They are lively, friendly, funny, open and polite, with what seems to me like a very strong sense of community spirit.  Life is centred around big open, treelined shady squares, very much like the plazas in Spain.  Adults sit in cafes on the edge of the square watching children play around the trees and fountains in the centre.

Yesterday I hired a bicycle, repeating the words of the rental guy in my head as I pedalled up some steep hills: “if you don’t climb the hill you will not see the view”.  How right he was!  Cycling on French roads, you are treated like royalty by the cars sharing your space – they slow down for you, queue behind you until there’s somewhere to pass, give way to you at roundabouts and other intersections.  There is no sense of being in anyone’s way.  A number of times I passed groups of cyclists going the opposite way, two-and-three-abreast on the road, with cars queued behind them waiting patiently for a place to pass.

Farewelling Karen on Saturday I’ll be in Provence for at least another week, possibly longer because it is going to be a pull getting me out of here.  As yet I have no onward plans.  Having seen so much in the past three months, I want to savour what I’ve seen of Europe and not rush off to see/do any more.  You cannot see or do everything, even if you spent your whole life traveling, and the best way to travel is to stop and spend time getting to know the place, people, language, culture and lifestyle.  For now I can’t think beyond staying still for a while in Provence and just being in this very magical moment.  Perhaps this will be my final European destination before returning to Cambodia.

Reiterating the extreme good fortune I am always so aware I live with, I type this with BBC World News on mute in front of me and livestreaming MSF’s International General Assembly in Barcelona on my laptop.  BBC continue to cover the migrants in Calais trying to jump into trucks crossing to the UK.  A few days ago I was in Calais again, for a flash of a moment as the Eurostar emerged from the Channel Tunnel and hurtled towards Paris, where I took a subway across the city to the TGV station en route to Avignon.  Joanne Liu, MSF’s International President, is speaking in Barcelona on the many complex challenges facing MSF, from Ebola in West Africa to the new sea search and rescue missions being undertaken in the Mediterranean, to mass population displacement in Syria and the spread of Drug Resistant TB across the poor world.

This brings my thoughts to Paula, the 25 year old DRTB patient who was told she had abdominal cancer when in fact it was Drug Resistant, abdominal TB.  As I type, as the migrants race to jump into the back of trucks at Calais, as Dr Liu speaks, I can see Paula sitting on her wooden bed beside the barred window in her elevated shack beside the Mekong, across the narrow track from her village mosque.  Her abdominal wounds ooze faeces, she struggles to gain weight beyond the 30kg she has achieved since a year ago when I met her, at 20.8kg and tearful that she had a terminal cancer she did not have.  Her 15yo brother and their father have moved to Malaysia to work on fishing boats in order to keep the family fed.  They will not return for three years.  She sits on that bed with a copy of the Koran as her constant companion.  She has sat there for months, wishing and hoping to recover from this debilitating disease.  So far, there is no indication this will happen for her.  Our simultaneous lives are so disparate that if I hadn’t experienced them both in person, I would not believe it possible.

Over my months in Europe I have sent regular emails and photographs to the children at Phter Koma, some of who have replied, practising their English on me.  We’ve also Skyped.  I hear from Chom regularly via Facebook as well as a number of my old colleagues.  Happy news from Cambodia is that the baby of my colleague, who was dying in hospital, intubated and having to be manually ventilated by family members, made an amazing recovery!  He still has severe cerebral palsy so life will remain challenging and he is very vulnerable to further illness.  It has not been possible to have contact with many others who I miss a lot.  Paula is one.  The young family with the crippled father on the outskirts of Dara’s village, Dara and his family, the blind widow and her elderly parents and young daughters, the landmine victim in Siem Reap.  It is starting to feel like time to return.  If I can only find the momentum I’ll need to jump out of this fairytale.

Nelson Mandela

Freedom and Genius

Since my last blog post I’ve had a couple of days of “down time” in London.  A while ago Laura loaned me a DVD copy of The Hundred Foot Journey, and I finally got the time to watch it. Starring some brilliant actors, Helen Mirren shines in a lead part alongside the very lovable and talented Indian actor Om Puri, but the younger leads are also excellent.  It depicts French village life exactly as my imagination conjurs it after visiting rural Dordogne last month.  A most enchanting, light yet meaningful story with beautiful scenery, fun humour and stunning cinematography.  Experiencing genius like this is one of the most conspicuous absences from life in rural Cambodia, where a year of cinema passed me by.  In contrast it is one of the most wonderful aspects to life in a big city such as London, albeit that this was a catch-up DVD from last year’s cinema drought.

Bad Jews is a harsh-humoured play set in a Manhattan apartment starring exactly four actors who hold the audience’s attention with their dramatic First World angst.  It is currently running at The Arts Theatre, below The Arts bar where I spent many nights in the early 1990s.  Last night James and I walked out of The Arts feeling almost assaulted by the caustic themes of greed and grief.  It was worth seeing and sparked some interesting conversation at the pub later on, but not a feel-good experience at all.

This morning I took a tube to South Kensington and managed to make my way around the neighbourhood I lived in for a year in 2002-2003 (in hospital accommodation), where some of London’s most exclusive residences encircle leafy private parks.  I wandered back along Exhibition Road, lined with several famous museums (eg Victoria and Albert; Natural History) and academic institutions (eg Imperial College), past the Royal Albert Hall and then along the southern edge of Hyde Park.  Strolling in the shade of the huge trees lining South Carriage Drive, I watched dozens of school groups play football and softball on the old football pitches, site of the 1851 Great Exhibition.  Past a plaque memorialising Rotten Row, the Kingdom’s first lamp-lit road originating in 1690, I made my way around the curving paths of the Rose Garden near the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk.  This was a tiny glimpse of the enormous Hyde Park, so Kate is coming up from Surrey tomorrow and we plan to explore the park some more.

My most awesome discovery today, despite all of the above, was Joshua Oppenheimer.  There is a charming underground cinema a short walk from where I’m staying in Bloomsbury, which screens foreign language films and documentaries.  The entrance is opposite a park, on the edge of an outdoor shopping plaza which is perched about 15 steps above street  level.  Walking in at this level, you find the first level bar and ticket counter in a room no more than about 10 metres squared.  Further bar/ticket counters are one and two storeys below ground, furnished with modern and comfortable lounge seating and decor including cinema-themed black and white photographs and private nooks with atmospheric lighting.  Despite seeming small, the subterranean setting allows for at least six screens with upwards of fifty seats in each.  Last week I saw an Argentinian film here, comprising six short stories about revenge, called Wild Tales.  It was brilliantly shocking and clever.

Joshua Oppenheimer is an up-and-coming American filmmaker whose film The Act of Killing won Best Documentary at last year’s BAFTAs and was nominated for Best Documentary in last year’s Oscars.  Arriving back at Russell Square this afternoon I walked home via the cinema and spent a couple of hours as the solo audience for the 4pm screening of The Look of Silence.  This Oppenheimer documentary is the sequel to The Act of Killing, which I have not seen.  With very little knowledge of what the film was about, I was quickly enthralled.  A brief text introduction in the opening scene explains that in 1965 the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military who immediately employed death squads to kill anyone deemed to be a communist.  This story must be incredibly complex in it’s wider context, but in this particular film we meet a guy called Adi who is my age but leads a very different existence to me.  A significant part of his existence is the constant presence of his brother Ramli, who died two years before Adi was even born.  Ramli is with Adi everyday through the omnipresence of his killers, who not only survive unpunished, but are hailed as heroes who purged Indonesia of the hated and evil communists.  The families of victims of this massacre live alongside the killers of their sons and daughters, who talk openly of their crimes, and are adulated within their families.  Many of them hold positions of power, through intimidation in many if not most cases.

Adi’s young son sits in a classroom as his teacher talks about the evil communists who the country’s now-ageing “heroes” valiantly got rid of in 1965 and 1966.  He goes home and tells his father what he has learned.  Adi, a gentle, serene and extremely brave man, is a community optometrist who visits elderly villagers to test their vision and fit them for glasses.  He gives his son a more balanced perspective of what actually took place, including mention of Uncle Ramli’s death.  He also begins to ask his clients about their knowledge of and/or involvement in, the massacres which are said to have occurred daily.  A range of responses are received, from denial that anything happened, to open admissions and horrific details of cruel terror, torture and murder, and applause of the murderers.

Ramli’s death is unusual in that he escaped from the machete which severely wounded him first.  He managed to reach his parents’ home where he spent a night before the death squad located him the next morning, assuring his mother they were taking him to hospital!  Throughout the film, scenes show Adi watching on a television set in an almost-bare concrete-walled room, what I assume to be The Act of Killing documentary.  He witnesses Ramli’s killers talk in detail about his brother’s terror and murder before they threw his mutilated body into Snake River, the graveyard of an estimated million people during this slaughter.  Adi visits many homes to interview these killers and others, many of them now-powerful political leaders.  He speaks with their families and also his own family including his mother, who features repeatedly throughout the film alongside her 104yo husband who is now blind and helpless.  His mother’s brother admits to having been a prison guard at the place where Ramli was held prior to his murder.  During a number of the interviews Adi is intimidated and threatened, with comments such as “continue with your communist activity” and “if you do not want it to happen again then you need to change your behaviour”.

The most disturbing thing about these interviews is the openness and honesty of the murderers, who are proud of their actions, and seen by their families and obviously within the current political system of Indonesia, as heroes!  During a number of the interviews, when the men and/or their families realise Adi and Joshua (who remains behind the camera throughout) do not hold them in the esteem they believe they deserve, their demeanour changes visibly within an instant.  One former Kommandant is sitting beside his daughter who proudly boasts of her father’s fame as a communist killer.  She suddenly grasps the intention of the interview, just as her father boasts some grisly deeds she claims not to have heard of before.  Her proud smile transforms like a flower wilting on a high speed time lapse video.  Adi says to her, maintaining calm eye contact as her father sits opposite him, “it is not your fault that your father is a murderer”.  I hope the experience halts her boasts about daddy being a killer!

The film is gripping but explicit.  I have excluded all grisly details – if you’re interested enough you can watch it yourself.  It seems our world is teeming with political leaders who have risen to the top through violence, terror, intimidation and deceit.  Cambodia and Indonesia are two very undeserving partners to contemporary Australian politics, yet both countries feature prominently in less than honourable headlines at the moment.  At least, unlike so many involved in the making of The Look of Silence, I currently have the freedom to speak my mind in safety.  The credits at the end of today’s film looked largely like the below photograph which I took as they were rolling.

I also found these press notes to The Look of Silence, which make for an interesting read on the background to the making of the film, and of Oppenheimer’s values as a person.  A genius with a big heart.  Just what our world needs more of!


Experiencing England

Magna Carta
If you’ve noticed the theme of Google’s home page today, you might know that eight hundred years ago, on 15th June (today in England), King John of England signed the Magna Carta.  He was an unpopular king, apparently spiteful, petty and regularly placing himself above the law.  He often features as a villain in tales of Robin Hood.  A group of 25 barons rebelled against him, forcing negotiations which led to the signing of the Magna Carta.  No other king has ever taken his name, so he’s just King John – no numbers required!  Despite his contentious reputation, he is also connected to the Magna Carta and it’s significance in the history of Britain and her empire.

In short, the charter was an agreement between King John and the rebel barons, signed at Runnymede in Surrey amidst controversy related to the King’s persistent behaviour during and beyond the negotiations and signing.  Among other things, the Magna Carta acknowledges that noone – even the King – is above the law.  It also instituted the right to a fair trial and limited arbitrary taxation.  To this day the charter is said to underpin the principles of British law, both in Britain and throughout the historical British empire.  Four original copies of the charter survive; two of them at the British Library, one at Salisbury Cathedral and one at Lincoln Cathedral.

A good friend was coordinating some of Lincoln’s Magna Carta festival celebrations this weekend and I went along to volunteer.  I’d never experienced behind the scenes of an arts event before and it was electrifying.  We walked 15km on Saturday and another 11km yesterday, stewarding the performers who alternated in groups so that from 10am until 10pm (Saturday) and 11am until 5pm (yesterday), there was always a performance happening in the town centre.  Street parades with a huge King John puppet, dancing/prancing skeletons, mice, cats, pigs, cows and dance troops, grooved to the beat of an amazing percussion band as we moved through Lincoln town centre and engaged with a very interactive street audience. This morning a school group who created a 20-metre-long scroll with ideas about the meaning of freedom, representing the basis of the Magna Carta, paraded their massive scroll through Lincoln and up the hill to Lincoln Castle, next to the Cathedral. Here, the giant King John puppet was met by a real-life King John who spoke at length to the individual students about their creation, not before asking our puppet “are you supposed to be me?”, with typical British satire!  “Our” puppet even made BBC news today!

Reading the ideas and values on the children’s scroll this morning I couldn’t help but feel that we still have a long way to go.  Around the same time as we were parading through Lincoln, Prime Minister David Cameron addressed a crowd at Runnymede, including Queen Elizabeth, speaking about the Magna Carta’s relationship with modern day justice and freedom and the balance of power between the governed and governments.  Yet in today’s Daily Telegraph, as a single example, headlines include health system executives “temping” for £47,000 per month (up to £600,000 per annum) in health trusts struggling to balance their books.  Underneath that headline is a story about British companies only employing new applicants from top universities and schools, describing the phenomenon as a “class ceiling”.

Not to mention of course, the humanitarian crisis playing out around the world, manifesting itself in wealthy countries as a refugee crisis.  The Australian government are currently facing a furore after it was alleged that they paid Indonesian people smugglers to turn their boats back!  The doctrine of the Magna Carta, that justice will neither be bought, denied or delayed for anyone, is still a pipe dream, eight hundred years on, even in the English-speaking, privileged world.

Another fun British Bash I went to recently was the wedding of my friend’s niece, Hannah.  She was only two when I met her and sixteen years later she traveled to Australia to live with me for three months in Alice Springs.  She had just met her groom-to-be at that time, and he joined us briefly before the two of them went traveling on Australia’s east coast.  So it was a special wedding.  The ceremony was held on the waters of a Norfolk Broad, an absolutely beautiful rural setting.

The British Museum deserves a special mention here also.  It is on a par with New York’s Metropolitan Museum, both in relation to the immense and beautiful building, as well as the monumental art and anthropology collections within.  When I mentioned my visit to the British Museum to an English friend last week, I nearly fell over laughing at his observation : “How can they call it the “British” Museum?  It’s really the “What-The-British-Stole-From-Other-Countries-Museum””!  He has a point!  They hold a lot of disputed items which have been removed from countries as far away as Australia and as disconnected from England as China.

I specifically attended the British Museum to view an Indigenous Australia exhibition which is showing until early August before it travels to Canberra later in the year.  It was an informative and enjoyable exhibit, showcasing 170 previously unshown items from the museum’s permanent Indigenous Australia collection.  In today’s controversial climate, with calls being made from a number of countries, including Australian indigenous groups, that items be returned to their rightful homes, this seems to me, to be a step in the right direction.

When the exhibit travels to Australia later this year, a brewing storm could well erupt as indigenous activists are keen to see many items held by international museums, returned to Australia.  In 2004 the British Museum loaned some bark etchings and a ceremonial headdress originating from the Dja Dja Wurrung people of Victoria, to Museum Victoria in Melbourne.  Members of the Dja Dja Wurrung attempted to seize these items via an emergency court order, accusing the British Museum of “colonial arrogance”.   This seizure attempt led to new anti-seizure legislation in Australia, ensuring the return of items loaned to Australian institutions from overseas.

Last week Chris and I hung out in medi-evil Lewes, in East Sussex, for the day.  I highly recommend this as a day trip from London, although England is brimming with medi-evil charm and the options for day trips to the middle ages are countless.  The train from St Pancras took me directly to Brighton where Chris picked me up and we laughed our way to and through Lewes and the South Downs before Chinese takeaway at his home near my old student nurse residence.

Two Sundays ago I went for a family lunch with Laura and her extended family, all of whom I’ve now known for 25 years.  Her daughter is my god daughter, herself now an honours law graduate working for a company in the financial district.  A few days later Laura and I had lunch with my old boss Bianca, who I was secretary to 26 years ago when the three of us first met at our offices at 1 London Bridge.  As a 20 year old, my boss Bianca was a 35 year old management consultant with a Cambridge University degree.  She took me out for lunch at an expensive French restaurant on my 21st birthday and I remember feeling very out of place.  Despite this, and the fact that I deserted her when another consultant offered to send me to Turkey for a month on a project which needed a typist, she was only ever very kind and sincere towards me.  Since then she has survived a cancer diagnosis and now works in consultancy offering advice and support to cancer sufferers, about their rights as employees.  I had never thought about cancer as a condition which attracts workplace discrimination.  We reconnected because Laura is now nearing the end of treatment via an oncologist on Harley St and she is facing difficulties with her employer.  Proving how small this world is, she encountered Bianca at a seminar on workplace discrimination, about a week before my arrival back in the UK!  Bianca took us both to a fancy Italian restaurant at Leadenhall Market, in the financial district, where we talked non-stop like old friends and not an ounce of youthful intimidation was felt.

With so many reconnections to my previous life, it will be more than a little difficult to leave when I finally force myself to book a ticket out of Europe.  The time is approaching, but not before a few more stories of England and France unfold.  I probably need to try and blog more often, so that my posts are not such a hodge-podge as this one seems to be!

A Plug for Phter Koma

Phter Koma have a new website!

Thanks to Amber, the daughter of a good friend of mine, who is extremely clever at building websites.  Not only did she create the page but she also donated the page costs to us.  Thanks, Amber!

This is in addition to the French website which has been in existence since Phter Koma’s inception.  At our Board of Directors meeting earlier this year, requests were made for a specific English speaking website, directed at our Cambodian organisation.  The French Association, La Maison des Enfants, our main partner and donors, are a separate but connected entity who exist purely for the purposes of providing funds, support and advice to Phter Koma Kampong Cham.  Their website is

We are looking for volunteer(s) interested in teaching English +/- other skills to 15 children during the Cambodian summer holidays, which are six to eight weeks through September into October.  Native English speakers are highly prized, teaching experience can be gained during your time with us.  Resources which I used during my time are available for use and I can provide advice and support from afar.  The Director and Educator based at Phter Koma speak English and are very supportive.  You will need to have all of the child-safe checks and pay your own costs.  Having volunteered there myself for about eight months, I can recommend it as a highly rewarding experience.  I’m happy to answer any questions potential volunteers may have.

We are also constantly on the look-out for donors.  Our budget is very constrained, we even hope to find assistance with our rice supplies.  The children have to be clothed, fed, school fees paid, etc.  The house is very small for 15 children and has recently been placed on the market so we need to find a new rental home which will probably increase the budget substantially.  It is a constant stress for us, but very small amounts in western terms can make a big difference in Cambodia, so all donations will be gratefully received.

You can read about us, the work we do, the ways your donation can help, and see some great, happy photographs, at our new website.  Due to the stigma that HIV carries with it, the photographs are de-identified to protect the children’s privacy.  You’ll also find a donations button if you would like to become a donor.  We are a registered charity in Cambodia, USA and France.

We also have a Facebook page which is regularly updated – the link is on our website.

Trying Not To Be Grotesque

If I had a bucket list, “take Eurostar to Paris for a day” would definitely have been somewhere in the top ten.

So on Monday I took Eurostar to Paris for a day!

Sacre Couer as seen from the Eiffel Tower on Monday

Sacre Couer as seen from the Eiffel Tower on Monday

Every year one national staff member from each MSF program attends the Annual General Meeting in Paris, an incredible opportunity for anyone, let alone those from the poor world.  This year’s Cambodian delegate described it as “a dream come true”.  Turning up in Paris expecting this young woman to be overwhelmed and afraid, I found something else entirely.  Off the flight from Phnom Penh she took her suitcase on the city-bound train then navigated two Metro lines to reach her accommodation, assisted solely by directions someone had given her.  By the time I arrived, she had the Metro system completely sussed and had already seen many of the famous sights.  Full of beans, she informed me that she was ready to travel to the top of the Eiffel Tower!  A bit of an acrophobe, taking an elevator 280 metres into the skies above Paris was NOT on my bucket list, but I was glad (after the event), to have done it.  The views were breathtaking.  We queued for hours, but it was worth the effort, followed by lunch at a restaurant boat on the Seine, a riverside stroll and an hour-long river cruise past many famous and beautiful sights, before walking back to the Metro and heading home.

We passed the “Flame of Liberty”, a large golden replica of the flame carried by Lady Liberty in New York, which was donated to France as a symbol of Franco-American friendship in 1989 by a group of international donors.  This flame sits outside the tunnel entrance where Princess Diana was killed in 1997.  This is just one of many points of interest we saw.  Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower was a highlight.  So was Paris from a boat on the Seine.  The Louvre, Pont Neuf and many other bridges, Notre Dame, Musee d’Orsay and so many other sights which sit in historic magnificence above this flowing turquoise waterway.  During lunch we had a chuckle about the African street sellers trying to look innocent as they stood around with mountains of glittering Eiffel Towers hanging off their arms, pretending not to be selling them as a security guard watched on closely, hoping to rid them from the tourist-packed embankment.  One approached us clandestinely to offer five gawdy keyrings for €1.  My typically Cambodian friend jumped at the offer and immediately bartered for an extra, walking away with eleven for the price of ten, at a third of the price she’d seen elsewhere.

Arriving at Gare du Nord with moments to spare, I was relieved the train was delayed until I learned the reason why.  A 32 year old woman was struck and killed on the line in Kent earlier in the day, about three hours after I’d passed through the area on the first morning train.  The only border control officers who ever show any interest in me are those at the British border, where I tend to get quizzed about the whys and wherefores of my nomadic life.  I can only guess that this is because Australians are more likely to enter/stay illegally in UK, than in any other country I’ve visited over the past six months.  Monday night was no different.  Stamped through with total disinterest at the French exit desk, I walked a few metres to the UK entry desk and was met with a barrage of questions about what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, who I’m doing it with, how I got to be doing it in the first place!  Followed by the comment that “We hear about this long service leave you get in Australia!  Talk about lucky!”.  Yep!  Even luckier, that the world’s international borders are so open to me courtesy of the passport I happen to carry.

Yesterday somewhere near Gare du Nord, which is near Sacre Couer Cathedral in my photograph above, hundreds of migrants from Africa were evacuated from a tent city where many have been waiting for months to have their asylum applications processed.  Reports state that dozens of police arrived, barricaded the area, moved the migrants onto buses, before giving the go-ahead for the area to be bulldozed, clearing away the migrants’ tents.  How different my memory of Gare du Nord and Sacre Couer are, from those not lucky enough to carry a passport like mine.  My bucket list is filled with wishes of luxury and extravagance while so many simply want security and freedom.  This seems symbolic of the extreme imbalances which exist in our world, based purely on where you happen to be born.

Another symbolic example of this imbalance, is my latest First World Problem as it occurs simultaneously to a Third World Problem I am connected to.  For the next few weeks I will be based in London, seeing friends and doing some of the London things I have never done before – Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and other such splendours.  Also a trip to a festival in one of England’s northern cities with a friend, and a visit back to Brighton where I lived for three years as a student nurse in the 1990s.  Later this month Karen arrives from New York and we have a week in Provence together (my third trip to France this year!).  I’ll write more about that once it’s happened because an amazing coincidence happened during our Provence planning which illustrates the good fortune which happens when you are living an already fortunate life.  Once my week in Provence ends, I have to decide where to from there.  The options are many and only limited by my financial freedom, which is not as uncommitted as my time!  I may decide to revisit New York, return to Cambodia earlier than planned, or anywhere in between.

This year has been filled with so many amazing experiences.  Not only do I have to continually kick myself to check I’m not dreaming, but every time I catch a train or bus, am served by a waiter or barmaid, check in to an accommodation, buy something or walk past a street vendor or beggar, I feel acutely aware that I am engaging with people just like me, who do not have my stress-free, lady-who-lunches (albeit temporary) lifestyle.  The only constraints I am under come from my own conscience.  As I trip around pleasing myself from one day to the next, making plans as the fancy takes me, thoughts of just how privileged I am almost plague me.  I wonder if it is not, in some way, a bit grotesque?  Even more so when I am so connected to so much poverty and adversity, via Cambodia.  The other point I struggle with is that while this existence is enjoyable, it is not fulfilling in the way that living in Cambodia (or Alice Springs) has been.  Doing things only for myself is utterly amazing, but there is no sense of fulfillment.  Perhaps the biggest lesson of this year will be that travel, leisure and decadence are highly over-rated?  Which is in keeping with last year’s lesson – that helping others less fortunate than us is highly under-rated!

Meanwhile in Cambodia, an 18 month old baby who does not walk or talk, whose diagnosis, courtesy of the health system and it’s lacking resources, remains unknown, lies on a plastic mattress in an under-resourced, third world hospital bed, afflicted with fevers of unknown origin.  He is allegedly in “ICU”.  Which seems to mean “we can access some oxygen”, rather than the definition of ICU in my world, where expensive machines, state of the art medications and no-holds-barred care are an assumed right.  His mother could be me. She has the same qualifications as me, obtained in Cambodia rather than in the West, under much more hardship and sacrifice than I have ever faced.  The difference between us is purely the luck of where we were born.  Her baby may die.  Noone seems to know or be able to find out, what exactly his problem is.  He may have Cerebral Palsy but he may have a genetic disease because his mother had a brother and two nephews born with similar conditions, all of whom died before their second birthday.  She wrote to me the other day “I feel I will lose him soon because my brother died when he was 2”.  The doctors do not know what is wrong with her baby and are providing her with various unsatisfactory guesses. They do not have access to investigative tools which are available in the West and cannot offer much in the way of advice, care or treatment.  Recently at a local health centre he was turned away because “there is no point treating him, he is disabled”!!  She has asked for a salary advance in order to cover the cost of staying in a room near the hospital and is taking leave without pay to be near him.  Not only does she have a severely handicapped child, but her financial status is also severely handicapped, with $400 per month – now on hold – not enough to feed and nurture one sick child, let alone herself and the extended family who rely on her because of her “substantial” income.  She weighs 39kg and is unable to eat more than a few spoonfuls at a time, due to a combination of stress and prolonged starvation caused by her poverty.

I am no more worthy than my friend or her young son.  But because of my luck at birth, I am treated as more worthy.  In every avenue of life, particularly in our times of illness and need, those of us who have suffered the least, appear to be valued the most.  In my opinion, this value judgement should be turned on it’s head.  But I come from a country where news headlines such as that below, dominate and cause controversy, as people debate whether our country teeming with resources should “have” to help anyone less deserving than us, in our glorified privilege.

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC).  Australia's largest provider of aid, advocacy, legal and employment services to people seeking asylum.

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). Australia’s largest provider of aid, advocacy, legal and employment services to people seeking asylum.